Wednesday, 17 October 2007

On The Underground again

I have played a few more games of On The Underground, with Michelle, as 2 player games. Part of the reason that I bought On The Underground was that Michelle has lived in London before for a few years and I was hoping the familiarity with the Underground stations will persuade her to play the game with me. Michelle lived near the Elephant and Castle station, and coincidentally in her first game she built an Underground line to that station too.

In this game, you get tracks of 2 to 4 colours (depending on number of players), and you use them to build your Underground lines. Once you start building a line, you can only develop it further by extending at either end. You can only branch out by paying branch tokens. This cost discourages too much of branching out. There are a few different ways of scoring - by connecting to national railway stations, by connecting to terminuses, by connecting two stations with the same symbols, by creating loops (something like the Circle Line in London) and finally you also score when the passenger travels using your Underground lines. Every turn, you can build up to four tracks, and after building, the passenger will travel to one or two destinations. He (maybe a she, I don't know) may not necessarily use your lines. His principles are (1) walk as little as possible (e.g. he'd rather walk one block and take a 2 hour Underground trip, than walking two blocks), and (2) use as few Underground lines as possible (he hates changing stations and even going into a station, because, as every Londoner knows, the air in the Underground is quite dirty) (e.g. he'd rather take a 1 hour Underground trip on the same line, than taking two 5 minute trips on two different lines). If there is more than one route where both considerations are equal, the active player decides which route the passenger will take, and of course, would choose the route more beneficial to himself/herself. The game ends when the deck of destination cards run out.

Halfway through a game. Elephant & Castle station is in the lower centre of the board, the upper right corner of that "X", with a green token.

When I first played On The Underground, I felt it was quite tactical (as opposed to stategic). After playing my fourth game, I am starting to see slightly more of the strategic side. The tactical feeling comes from trying to maximise your score within your turn, e.g. connecting to terminuses or national railway stations, and also comes from trying to develop your lines in such a way so that the passenger will take your line(s) on this turn. These are still valid approaches, but now I am starting to see some other longer term considerations / strategies.

Blocking is actually one very powerful strategy. In the games we've played, we have not actively pursued this strategy, but blocking did happen. We cut each other off from being able to extend our lines further. So, you need to be careful where you start a line, and need to be careful to expand quickly enough before being blocked off. You need to be watching out for space to further expand to, so you are basically planning ahead for your line. You may not always be able to plan the exact stations you want it to go to, but you already have some rough idea where the line is going to, e.g. from the south east, cutting through the centre, and then going north.

National railway stations, terminuses and stations with symbols are also longer term considerations when you think of where to start a line or where to extend your existing line. Some areas of the map have more such stations than others. You really should think about these before you start a line, rather than only trying to maximise scoring on a turn by turn basis when the line is already started.

Another long term consideration, and this is a memory element, is remembering what destination cards have appeared and which have not. Every destination card is unique so if a destination has appeared, it will never appear again. So if you notice that many destinations in a certain area of the board have already come out, then it may not be wise to start a new line there, because the passenger will not be traveling to that area much in future.

I have only played On The Underground as 2 player games, where each player gets tracks of 4 colours, i.e. you can build 4 Underground lines. I think this game is more suitable for fewer players. 2-3 players is probably better than 4-5. You will have more control and you can plan your overall Underground network.

On The Underground is an enjoyable game for me. Not an all-time-classic type of game for me, but still a well designed game that provides challenge. A game that I'm happy to have in my collection, because, hey, it's got Elephant and Castle!

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